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PJ Harvey album deftly fuses new pop and old blues

To Bring You My Love

PJ Harvey.

Island Records.

By Scott Deskin
Arts Editor

I remember the first time I saw Polly Jean Harvey: a couple of years ago in an issue of Ray Gun. Back then, her band PJ Harvey released Rid of Me. Although I haven't heard that album in its entirety, the band's latest release To Bring You My Love at first may seem like a calculated move into the mainstream: The blues derivatives are probably more marketable than the harsher vocals and British indie-influenced melodies on the first album. One secret to the mellower approach is the use of multiple overdubs, which took many weeks in the studio, to sweeten the sound of the tracks.

The title track borrows its rhythmic thrust from any number of old blues numbers. Harvey's voice in this song settles into low growl as a direct melodic analog of the repetitive bass line. After awhile the guitar buzzes in at a slow crawl, and Harvey's voice buzzes into the chorus with the erotic menace of "To bring you my love."

"Down by the Water" and "C'mon Billy," the first two singles from the album, are bold extrapolations of Harvey's evident basis in the blues. "C'mon Billy" is a fairly standard take on sexual longing and emotional yearning, but it gains additional weight on the strength of Harvey's vocals, earnestly claiming that her Billy is "the only one."

On "Down by the Water," Harvey's voice takes on a couple of different personalities: First, as a narrator in a cautionary tale of "blue-eyed girl become blue-eyed whore"; and second, as the eerie recurring voice in the song's coda, "Little fish, big fish / Swimming in the water / Come back here, man / Gimme my daughter." Also, the maracas that flesh out the last third of the song typify just one of the "little things" that make a song memorable. Some people have called the song annoying, but this "Water" has already got me hooked.

Lyrically, To Bring You My Love is steeped with sex - pretty familiar territory for Harvey, with songs like "50 Ft. Queenie" under her belt. But although she may be as up front about the subject as Liz Phair, her feelings are more ambiguous: As she admits in the latest issue of Spin, "I'm a bit more old and jaded now." At age 25? By now, she's a full-fledged member of the alternative scene standing on the brink of the mainstream, but it seems a bit early for her to swear off relationships in a purely sexual vein. However, that may give her a bit more perspective when dealing with pained young love experienced by the characters of her songs, served well by the appropriated blues medium.

I listened to this on a promotional cassette in lieu of a compact disc, so I'll speak briefly of the closing songs to "sides" one and two. "Teclo" features "Let me ride" as a refrain, while "The Dancer" features Harvey's moaning on the off-beat of the song's final approach. Where the vocals of "Teclo" are offhand and resigned to the inevitability of sexual acts, Harvey lets loose on "The Dancer" with wails and moans of near-orgasmic intensity.

The question is: Will audiences get into the music rather than get put off by it? I think so, because the raw nature of Harvey's music, infused with her latest, red-satin-dress persona, is a weird and winning combination. Of course, it's possible that she could suffer from overexposure in today's market of multi-platinum sales and rapidly-stale radio play lists. But Liz Phair hasn't made her commercial breakthrough yet, which just goes to show that the music industry will always need some artists at the edges of the mainstream to keep everyone from going soft.

To Bring You My Love is a worthy redefinition of pop-blues neoclassicism, and I can think of worse fates for Polly Jean Harvey than to end up on the cover of Spin.